Our heroine, the dimension hoping Goddess of Planeptune has managed to find herself adventuring on an entirely different planet this time. There is a bit of a change though…she must have left her katanas in her other jumpsuit or enjoyed her time in Neptunia Shooter because she is now a gun user.
Developer: Idea Factory,
Publisher: Idea Factory
Release Date: 29 Mar, 2021
I have played almost every Neptunia game there is other than the original for Playstation 3, and I certainly would hasten to play it if I got the chance. I did play the Re;Birth version but the gameplay and story is drastically different I am told. Anyone who has read my reviews on here probably has noticed I tend to mention Neptune a fair amount either by name or through references. I am a fan of Idea Factory and Compile Hearts and jump at the chance to review their games. A long time ago, I made a joke that is still true to this day. If there was a Creativedimension Neptunia: Neptune Watches Paint Dry that contained nothing but Neptune looking at a wall for 60 hours straight, odds are I would pick it up and play the full 60 hours. With all the various genres Neptune and her friends have found themselves in, there is bound to be an entry point for someone there.
Neptunia Virtual Stars is a hybrid game that blends Third-Person-Shooter and Hack-and-Slash depending on which hero set you deploy. Oddly enough, this time around the Goddesses have ditched their regular weapons in favour of guns, so if you want to play as one of the Goddesses you will be playing with the Third-Person-Shooter style mechanics. If you play as a VTuber, you will be playing with the Hack-and-Slash mechanics. It is probably a good idea to take a step back and explain what a VTuber is just in case you are unaware because it is a term we will be using a fair amount in this review! VTuber is a portmanteau of Virtual YouTuber which is a fancy way to say someone who uses an avatar for facecams on Youtube (and other platforms too). These avatars usually have some kind of backstory and serve as more than just a mask for their respective user, it allows them to be another person. Neptunia Virutal Stars actually brings in many of the current VTubers to do cameo spots for the loading screens, various displays throughout the game as well as the items you can equip. It is definitely an interesting avenue for the game to have explored and it was an interesting way to try to target a new audience for the series.
When you are playing a Neptunia game there are a few things you can expect such as interesting characters, copious amounts of dialogue and straight-forward gameplay elements that serve as a diversion from the story. The characters in the series all have interesting personalities that mesh well together and tick the boxes for various different character types. Odds are there will be a character you find yourself enjoying more than others. For me it is good old pudding loving and idle Goddess Neptune, for a good friend of mine, it is the friendless, tsundere Noire she likes. Vert is your typical gamer and the book loving Blanc flies off the handle very easily. Through the various titles they have been joined by other individuals who all had their own unique look and characteristics. This is why I believe the VTuber element actually kind of fits this series. Back in the day, Neptunia games used the same kind of motion capture system as the VTubers use now so it only makes sense to consider bringing them into the fold. With that said, I feel the VTubers were shoe-horned into the game rather than implemented properly. This led to something that at first seemed interesting but lost its appeal fairly quickly… the loading screen ads. Every time you change areas, you are met with a loading screen; this loading screen is basically an introduction to various VTubers that attempt to sell their channel to you so you will go subscribe to them on YouTube or some other platform. As you navigate through levels, you will also see screens with the VTubers on them giving you a brief repeated message as you pass them by (you can stop to look if you want too) and they will occasionally pop up on your screen as you are playing the game to give you another message. That is pretty much the extent of their involvement in the game, just ads and repetitive distractions. You can also find items that have their name on them that can be used to boost your stats, but other than having their name and image it doesn’t really utilize the VTuber. If you have a VTuber you are a fan of it might be fun to watch for the ad for their channel, but with there being so many channel ads, it might take a while to come up especially since they seem to display at random with the same one coming up multiple times in a row. In the meantime, you might find some new ones that may interest you.
The level design is where Neptunia Virtual Stars starts to shine. The old Neptunia games were fairly linear and straight forward. You enter, walk through and exit. Sometimes there are paths that lead to treasure but typically that is about it. There is very little platforming and what there is can be very forgiving. It even went so far as to have pretty much the exact same level in another entry in the series (which made sense since it was meant to be the same area!) It worked fine for the genre and is nothing I would complain about. Neptunia Virtual Stars decides to change things up a bit. While the first areas are pretty much linear like your standard Neptunia game, it starts building on it. Each area has its own unique theme to it and some of the enemies there are even tailored to the area rather than the fairly standard copy paste and maybe recolour enemies of older Neptunia games. Sure, there is still a lot of that going on here, but it really doesn’t matter. This is the first time in a long time that my first encounter wasn’t a dogoo. There is also much more emphasis on platforming areas now that can even be a bit tricky to navigate (especially if you do not realize just how differently the Goddesses and VTubers movement styles differ). It was not until the Library that I discovered just how differently the Goddesses and VTubers behave navigating the area. In typical Neptune fashion, I leaped before I looked and landed on a fairly far away platform without thinking about getting back. I then tried to go back and no matter how creatively I jumped ol’Neppy just could not seem to get her toes to land on the edge of the previous platform. With the way the game handles falling off platforms, it drops you back on the last spot you were (without penalty) so that left me stuck on this platform without any way to get back. I recalled that the dash worked a bit differently for the VTubers so I tried doing the same thing with one them. It worked the first try. Turns out air dashing after leaping off the edge and double jumping was the trick to get back. Neptune could only glide quickly up to the ledge and double jump which unfortunately left her a bit short.
Speaking about differences, let’s talk more about the differences between the Goddesses and the playable VTubers a little more. I am not entirely sure if it was a bias on my part but the Goddesses felt a little more versatile in combat, so I ended up using them mostly. The Goddesses have range, especially Vert with her sniper rifle, allowing you to avoid taking a fair amount of damage. They can also glide around the area dodging attacks while unleashing their own attacks. Blanc’s charged shot is particularly powerful if you can get it off and hit your mark (without taking any damage in the interim). Noire is probably the best of the four in terms of balance, but Neptune’s rapid firing low damage attack was my go-to. The Goddesses can only be controlled individually and only one of them is out in the field at any given time, but you can quickly switch between them as needed. The VTubers on the other hand came out as a duo, with you controlling one and the other on autopilot. You can switch between them freely as well but I found the ranged partner of the two less satisfying to control in comparison to their melee counterpart. Unlike the Goddesses, the ranged partner pretty much needs to stop to fire their attacks off leaving them considerably more vulnerable. The melee character on the other hand offered a nice change of pace but also tended to take a lot more damage in the hectic battles. I often found that I had to babysit the autocontrolled character due to how much damage they would allow themselves to take. This ultimately left me mostly using the Goddesses for everything because I found their run and gun mechanic more enjoyable than the stand and deliver mechanic of the VTubers. Talking about the VTubers, you are actually joined by another pair of VTubers later who can be swapped out for the VTubers you already have, and only in pairs. I guess VTubers can’t collaborate with each other! It would have been nice had you had the four-pack option just like the Goddesses once you got the new pair, or if you could mix and match which two VTubers you were going to use, but sadly you cannot. In due course even the new duo was ultimately left to fade into obscurity in favour of the Goddesses.
As you progress through the game and rescue VTubers (non-playable ones!) you get cubes that function as equipable stat boosters. Besides just getting various bonuses, they are an important element of the story so it is a good idea to find as many as you can. You will actually get progress gated by them forcing you to backtrack to areas you have already been to rescue more of them. As a rule it is a good idea to be extra thorough while exploring the areas and go back to them rather than just rushing through the story. It will be a good way to farm emotion spheres (currency) anyway as you will need them to purchase upgrades in the town, including upgrading the town itself. It is kind of a low-key city builder element that allows you to add new buildings and upgrade them impacting what they have for sale. Most of the shops there are quite useful so it is a good idea to upgrade them when you can. You will also be able to find other interesting buildings there as well such as the BeatTik studio that houses a simple rhythm game. There is also a building that will help you find lost VTubers if you still need to meet your quota to progress and a gacha game to enjoy. There is also a shop that sells and upgrades your cubes and costume accessory pieces. Besides allowing you to add a little flair to your character, the accessories can also gain bonuses so they are more than just cosmetic changes. You even have the ability to move the accessories around and resize them to your liking to really personalize the character to your preference. There are also plain and simple outfit changes you can do if you grow tired of the new look of your characters and want something a little different.
Enough about that though, let’s talk a little more about the combat itself. There is a lot to unpack here and I am not going to spoil it all as I do like a bit a mystery but the game does go beyond what it appears. For example, boss battles are set in an arena to music. Depending on what part of the song is playing impacts the battle either in your favour or the enemy’s favour. It actually goes quite a bit deeper than that and it actually makes the boss battles far more interesting. A similar system is also available outside of boss battles as well. While I am not usually a fan of quick time events, the one in Neptunia Virtual Stars is actually quite reasonably done and quite forgiving so I have to say I did enjoy it. If you like frantic button spamming QTE, then this isn’t for you, but for the rest of us who don’t like breaking our controllers in frustration, the QTE does make the battle just that little bit more enjoyable. The regular combat though is a bit of a repetitive slog, but the fancy extra mechanics do help make up for that.
There is one last thing I need to mention before we start to wrap things up. The game is a bit unstable and tends to crash quite a bit. I did double check online to see if it was a widespread issue or an incompatibility with my hardware, but it appears to be a common occurrence. Now this is nothing that a patch or two won’t fix so I assume that these will be fixed sometime in the near future but at the time of writing this, it was an issue. Typically the game would crash at inopportune times, such as during a boss battle or after a boss battle before you can save your progress. I even had a humourous crash that occurred as I touched the save station. One that was very repeatable was when I attempted to give Noire some sunglasses. Since they were blocking her eyes, I decided to have her wear them tilted up on top of her head, as you sometimes see trendy people do and I could see Noire trying to copy them. As soon as I got them exactly where I wanted them and exited out of the menu the game crashed. I did the same thing again, and once again the game crashed. It seems the glasses clipping onto her head just that little bit was enough to make the game completely break at that point. Not wearing the glasses seemed to make the game stabilize although eventually I did try equipping them to her again and it worked perfectly then. With how often and frustrating the crashes were getting; my progress was hampered quite a bit. I didn’t actually get to finish the game before my deadline this time, something rare for me, simply because I had to keep redoing sections of the game due to inopportune crashing.
This game actually is one of the better looking Neptunia games there is, rivaling even Megadimention Neptunia VII. The characters are all very expressive in cut scenes and unlike classic Neptune games, they are quite animated, striking various poses and seeming far livelier. Much like in previous games, the backgrounds for the characters convey where they are. Each area looks strikingly different from the last. The combat was interesting enough to perform and the various acrobatics were all well animated. When activating the various limit-break-esque power drives, such as the Emotion Arts Live, the battlefield changes into something different from what it was. For the aforementioned Emotion Arts Live, the four Goddess join together in their HDD forms and you can spam attacks, sometimes a popup QTE will occur, and you press the corresponding button for a reward. It makes it feel like you are playing an entirely different game for a little bit. The fact there are so many of these visually stunning gameplay modes locked away for you to discover makes the game even more appealing. Even the simplistic rhythm game in the BeatTik studio where your character performs dance moves to the music was a laugh and quite enjoyable to watch.
This game is backed by a wonderful sound track and opening song much like the other Neptunia games have had. However, unlike its predecessors, this game is entirely voiced in Japanese. While I am no stranger to Japanese only language tracks in my JRPGs, it’s rather unusual for a Neptunia game. Typically you have your choice between switching between the English and Japanese audio tracks, and I sometimes do so just for fun, especially on a replay. I do like having the option to listen to the characters speak and enjoy the scenery rather than staring at the text box at the bottom of the screen. Thankfully, due to the story telling style you don’t really miss much by taking a moment to read the dialogue rather than just listening to it. It is a little annoying hearing random voice lines go off and having no translation of what is being said. Sure, it is just mindless dialogue that often gets repeated ad nauseam but I still kind of missed Neptune joyfully exclaiming “like a kangaroo” when she jumps. Plus with there being so many random dialogue lines said as you move around, it kind of feels like you are missing something if you can’t understand it.
User Interface and Controls
The controls take some getting used to and the user interface is very busy. You will get random messages popping up on your screen, VTuber windows popping open and various other things that distract you from the actual gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting feature, just sometimes it felt a bit overwhelming with there being so many other things that need your focus. I did like the live stream chat comments you could see popping up during boss battles and BeatTik dances but they also did cause me to make mistakes due to paying too much attention to them rather than to the business at hand. Having to press multiple buttons to trigger what you want to happen also didn’t work that well. Pressing a shoulder key and a face button triggers healing, pressing the face button on its own triggers slide. For some reason I often found the game ignoring my request to heal outside of battle and had my character just stand there or possibly start sliding. I did try it with a different gamepad, one that is actually brand new, and it had the exact same issue. The intermittent control issues tended to plague the combat. Thankfully not pulling off the ability you wanted usually doesn’t have dire consequences in a Neptunia game so it didn’t really ruin the experience. The menus are also kind of busy as well. The best example is the accessory positioning screen. Often when you first put a new accessory on your character, it just kind of floats on them and doesn’t fit the properly. The ears you see in the screenshot above the graphic’s section actually defaulted to floating above their heads and Nep’s tiara (you can’t really see it) defaulted almost inside her head. Going into the customization option gives you a very wide range of things you can do with the accessory, resizing it, moving it, turning, etc. and it is surprisingly complicated. The controls are all laid out for you on the screen though, so it isn’t that difficult to navigate. It is also quite difficult to try to figure out what exactly the bonuses do on your accessories, but it is doable! The only other gripe I have with the controls is that the defaults seem a little off. Aiming can be a bit of a pain because the movement doesn’t feel all that fluid. There is a box and as long as what you want to hit is in that box, you are probably going to hit it, but fine tuning the aim felt awkward. This was particularly noticeable when trying to hit stationary targets to unlock doors. Trying to aim at the sensor caused the targeting reticle to bounce around the target a bit rather than move smoothly or snapping to it.
So, should you pick up Neptunia Virtual Stars? That really depends. If you are into the whole VTuber culture, it likely will be interesting to you to have a game that has VTuber culture integral to the plot. While the actual use of VTubers being relegated to items and ads may leave you a little disappointed, it was still interesting to have a game revolving around that phenomena. It should not be used as a gauge for the Neptunia series though, the gameplay is considerably different from the main series. Neptunia fans will likely enjoy the new adventure their favourite Goddesses are embarking on, but like other spinoff games, it just doesn’t scratch that itch left behind by Megadimension Neptunia VII. The game felt very ambitious and likely will pave the way for an even more interesting Neptunia title in the future. If this amount of care and detail went into the level designs for future Neptunia titles, I feel we are on the right track. The combat needs work, but it is still quite good for what it is. The various mini-games that occur both out in the field and back at base kept the game feeling interesting. The fact that music played a part in the boss battles was a fun novel concept that I hope makes a return some day with even more refinement. If it wasn’t for the game being plagued by crashes, I could see this being a save worthy entry into the Neptunia franchise, but it in its current state, it is probably better to Save for Later.